21 April 2023, 13:30
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Jacob Blickenstaff
Keep Your Courage is a stirring return from Natalie Merchant. She talks to Alan Pedder about how love in all its forms sits at the heart of the record.
When Joan Didion’s estate went up for auction last November, the author’s iconic Celine sunglasses sparked a three-way bidding war that topped out at a whopping $27,000.
But what their new owner probably doesn’t know is that the shades were also briefly worn by Natalie Merchant – another American treasure – just the day before. Visiting the auction house in Hudson, New York, about a half-hour drive from where she lives, Merchant viewed the whole collection with a friend who just happens to be an English professor who’d had Didion as a student.
“It was interesting to be among her things,” she recalls. “Everything was kind of stained and threadbare. You could tell she wasn’t a great housekeeper. The thing we were struck by was that they had hundreds of her books, and I’d say 98% of them were by men. I didn’t expect her to have every Norman Mailer book, but she did.”
Though the sunglasses were a bust, and Merchant was outbid on the couple of other things she’d been tempted by, the experience was a fascinating glimpse into the life of a woman that she’d come to see almost as some sort of kindred. Like Didion, Merchant is a prolific journal-keeper, often writing on current events and social critique relayed through some kind of personal connection or experience.
“Reading a lot of her books during the lockdown, I realised that we had a similar approach to writing,” she says. “And I found it all connected. So much of what she was writing in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was kind of prophetic, or just really observant of this kind of hyper-culture of mass media, mass production and franchising. She could see it coming, and I lived through it arriving.”
Merchant was just 17 when she made her first record, fronting American folk-rock band 10,000 Maniacs. It included the first song she ever wrote, the year before, a chorus-free love song of sorts to her grandparents that grew out of a college class assignment. There’s no chorus to speak of, and the lyrics were provocatively weighty and austere – enough for notorious music grump Robert Christgau to damn her writing as little more than pretentious student poetry. But that voice. The strange, extraordinary sweetness of it. Merchant could have sung the Yellow Pages and still got her flowers.
Now 59, Merchant has long since shrugged off those early critiques. Maybe even finding herself almost in agreement. Having spent some of the pandemic reading through three boxes of journals she brought up from her basement – the earliest going all the way back to 1980 – she has a fresh perspective on the way it all unfolded.
“I am not who I was then, thank god!” she says, laughing. “It’s a journey, and unfortunately a lot of my early journey as a writer is captured on discs and I cannot escape them. I wish I could put a disclaimer on them, like ‘These lyrics were written by an adolescent who didn’t know what the hell they were doing.’”
Tracked in just a few days and pressed with money borrowed from the keyboard player’s mother, the making of that first record couldn’t have been more different from the way that Merchant works now. “It shouldn’t be held in the same regard,” she says. “I was suddenly in a recording studio with a bunch of people, pretending that we were a band. It was basically a demo. But you go on my Spotify page and it’s treated like a real album.”
Today we’re in an upscale hotel in central London, just footsteps from the BBC headquarters at Broadcasting House. Merchant has flown in from New York to do some radio and press for Keep Your Courage, her first album of almost-all-original songs in nine long years. “Welcome to my day room,” she says as I walk in, gesturing around at the untouched kingsize bed and a mute, enormous flatscreen TV. I’ve barely taken my notebook out of my bag before she slides it over the small round table to examine it. “Let me see your handwriting,” she says cheekily, scanning quickly through my question prompts while I make embarrassed excuses for the garbled notes I’d scribbled on the bus ride over.
In person, Merchant has such a warmth and gravity about her. She can be hard to read at times – a skill I have yet to master – but less enigmatic than you might expect. She’s also very funny, in a sweetly self-deprecating way. A couple of times she goes off on a tangent then folds her hands into her lap and nods across the table, “Alright, keep me on track!”
Nine years is a lot of ground to cover, and Merchant instructs that I’m not to give you the impression that she’s been sitting with her feet up “eating bonbons” this whole time. Besides raising her daughter, she’s been deeply embedded in the Hudson Valley community, politically as well as personally, spearheading a revived anti-fracking movement that worked to ban the “evil industrial practice” in the whole of New York state. Learning to be a filmmaker in the process, she later directed the documentary concert film Shelter, responding to the endemic domestic violence in the United States.
There has been music, too. First there was 2015’s Paradise is There, a string quartet re-recording of her solo debut Tigerlily to mark its twentieth year, and an accompanying documentary. Then there was the archival treasure chest of 2017’s The Natalie Merchant Collection, a boxset of all her albums plus a bonus disc of rarities and another containing four unheard songs and six reworkings, again with string quartet. Live, she built on all that work by bringing in a whole chamber orchestra, relishing the new possibilities of woodwinds and brass.
Keep Your Courage is the natural progression of that path. Working with seven different arrangers and over two dozen musicians, it’s not her biggest project – 2011’s Leave Your Sleep takes that crown with 135 players – but it is her most ravishing. Merchant has never been one to do things half-heartedly, but every note and detail here feels deeply considered in a way that goes beyond her own strict standards. “I don’t believe in filler,” she tells me, firmly. “I get accused of being not prolific, but I just believe in quality over quantity.”
When Merchant first let slip that she was finishing up a new record, on the Sheroes podcast last summer, she said the impetus was her daughter leaving home for college. “It was either have a nervous breakdown or make a new record,” she joked, but that’s only half the story. Since late 2019, Merchant has had two serious health crises – one that might have ended her career and the other her life.
“I started falling apart around Christmas time,” she says, explaining how she was sketching in the V&A Museum in London when she suddenly lost all sensation in her right hand. Returning to New York in incredible pain, she was told she needed emergency surgery to save her hand. “They took three bones out of my neck,” she says, drawing a line across her throat with a finger. “My spine had started to collapse. Two of the vertebrae crumbled and pinched a group of nerves that went down the arm. I couldn’t even pick up a glass of water.”
The surgery took place just five days before New York state went into lockdown in March 2020, and Merchant can’t shake the feeling of sorrow for all those who weren’t so lucky. “This would have been considered an elective surgery, so I just would have had to live in agonising pain through the lockdown and probably have lost the use of that hand for the rest of my life,” she says. “A lot of people were able to get through the pandemic unscathed, while other people’s lives were devastated. It was a frightening time.”
If being high-risk and in a neck brace 24 hours a day for two months wasn’t bad enough, that autumn Merchant got a tick bite while gardening that led to anaplasmosis, a severe brain infection that landed her in the ICU. “I nearly died,” she says, gravely. “I was developing sepsis. My heart was malfunctioning, my kidneys, my liver – everything was in crisis.”
Although she’s not entirely sure, given the pandemic’s weird way of compressing all of eternity, she thinks she started writing the songs for Keep Your Courage in September that year. Home from the hospital and confined with her piano, her journals, and decades’ worth of sketching, painting and unfinished songs, she got to work. The result, she says proudly, is an album about love in all its guises, “the journey of a courageous heart.” “It just seemed to make sense to me, after all that isolation,” she explains. “Whenever I’m in any kind of crisis, I play the piano. But I couldn’t even do that at the start of the pandemic because I couldn’t use my right hand for months. So when I say ‘keep your courage,’ I’m talking to myself as much as anyone.”
The love theme comes rocketing out of the gate with “Big Girls” and “Come on, Aphrodite”, two unabashedly pop duets with Abena Koomson-Davis of progressive political women’s group The Resistance Revival Chorus. For Merchant, “Big Girls” is about “the supportive and sisterly love” between women, while “Come on, Aphrodite” is simply an invocation to romance. But, oh, how it soars!
“I love singing with Abena, and I think there’s an underlying hope to it,” she says. “I think we need to see more positive representation in America, and what could be more symbolic than a Black woman and a white woman harmonising and singing together, being on completely equal footing, and bringing a message of hope that’s addressing everyone?”
Later, on songs like “Narcissus” and “Eye of the Storm”, love becomes a knottier concern. Everyone knows the cautionary tale of Narcissus, the hunter so fixated on his own beauty that he can’t look away from his own reflection, staring at it until death. But few remember his fate as divine retribution for his cruel rejection of the mountain nymph Echo, who, silenced with a curse, was at a loss to intervene as he fell in love with himself. Merchant’s passionate retelling gives life to Echo’s perspective, raging with helplessness and sorrow as Narcissus wastes away. “Love can be blissful, but it can also be dangerous, injurious,” she says. “I wanted to talk about all these different ways to experience it.”
Darker still is “Guardian Angel”, the only song on Keep Your Courage that’s been sitting around, unrecorded, for years. Written for a friend who, in the space of two years, had to bury her children and her husband, Merchant turns the idea of a guileless unseen protector on its head. What if they’re lazy? What if they’re just not paying attention?
“When I think of her guardian angel, it’s more about neglect than about intending her to suffer,” she explains. “But you can certainly look at it that way, and the music certainly sounds that way. The song starts with her in awe of her guardian angel, and by the end she’s threatening to kill it. There’s not a single electric instrument happening there, but I feel like that’s the rock and roll moment of the album.”
"I don’t believe in filler. I get accused of being not prolific, but I just believe in quality over quantity."
Elsewhere, love goes all the way up to population level. Merchant is well known for dealing with social issues in her writing, but on Keep Your Courage she’s less explicit about it. Still, there’s no mistaking that, beneath the funky horns and orchestral brass, “Tower of Babel” is a song about a world growing ever more divided. More subtle is “Song of Himself”, which she explains is “all about Walt Whitman and his kind of radical, expansive love of America.”
Written around the time of the MAGA insurrection, Merchant took heart in Whitman’s unwavering faith that a better America could emerge. “Although Jan 6 will always be a dark day, we’ve seen much darker days than that and Whitman lived through them,” she explains.
“It was a time when there was still slavery and women had absolutely no rights whatsoever. Native American people were being murdered on their own land. And he was aware of all that. He was a reporter, and he volunteered in the hospitals of both the Union and the Confederacy [in the American Civil War], caring for men who were dying of the racism and horrible hatred that turned our country against itself. He lived through all of that but could still say, ‘I believe in the promise of this country’.”
As a gay man and as a believer in the rights of all marginalised and threatened Americans, there’s no doubt in Merchant’s mind that Whitman was way ahead of his time – and, in some depressing ways, maybe ours too. “I think conservative Americans who are now attacking the teaching of history in our school systems would cancel Whitman in a second,” she says, indignantly. “The most significant literary figure in American history! They’d cancel him if they were aware enough to know what he really stood for, which was true freedom.”
Merchant pays tribute to other forces for freedom on the sparkling “Sister Tilly”, in which she declares her love for “an entire generation of women, seen through the love that I have for just one woman.” The twist? That woman exists only in Merchant’s own mind. The character is actually a composite of many of the older women in her life – women of her mother’s generation – now fading out of view. Poignantly, Joan Didion, who’s mentioned in the song, passed away in the same week that the vocals were tracked. Merchant dedicates the album to her “and all her sisters.”
Though it’s written in the form of a eulogy, “Sister Tilly” is one of Merchant’s most romantic, playful and expansive songs, blooming up into the cosmos with its midway change in tempo. Death can break your heart, but Tilly gets a send-off that’s peaceful and poetic. Merchant credits Scottish writer Robin Robertson for reawakening her love of language, first with his “brutally visceral and luminescent” narrative poetry book The Long Take and then through their correspondence that continues to this day. “We finally met this week for the first time,” she says, beaming. “It was so lovely. We felt like long lost friends.”
Pushed on the point, Merchant clarifies that she’d never really fallen out of love with language, she just “didn’t act on it as a writer.” “I don't know how it is for you, but sometimes you're so impressed by other people's writing that you almost don't want to bother yourself. Some songwriters are so good that they just make me feel diminished,” she says, pausing. “Or I allow myself to feel diminished.”
Inspired by Robertson’s words and encouragement, she says she gave herself “permission to write lyrics with more freedom and poetic intent,” and the songs began to flow, and flow fast. The fact that all but “Guardian Angel” and her cover of Lankum’s “Chasing the Wren” come from the same period gives Keep Your Courage a wonderful cohesion, underlined by “The Feast of Saint Valentine” at the album’s end. Having looked at love from all angles, she brings each of those viewpoints to bear in this stirring conclusion, landing on the hopeful note that love, despite its attendant regrets, is still the conqueror of all.
But what about that all-consuming, rapturous love? The kind that “Come on, Aphrodite” invokes, the knee-buckling, head-over-heels kind that makes you go half-blind? Does Merchant really believe in that kind of love? She throws her head back, laughing loudly. “I believe in the power of imagination and projection,” she answers, diplomatically. “I think that’s a bit of wisdom I’ve gained over the years. I’ve been in love enough times that I can look back and see that I sort of imposed upon myself a state of being ‘in love.’ I won’t call it self-deception, just an abundance of imagination. Those feelings I thought I had? I was just creating them myself.”
Having raised her daughter alone since she was four and half, Merchant says she doesn’t mind being single at all. “Yes, it’s lovely to feel connected to another person, and I won’t lie, I love having sex. But I have lovely, deep friendships with so many people. I have my daughter. And I have this incredible, tangible response to beauty and art and nature, and I’m valuing those things more and more.”
Naturally, her health problems have had an effect, too. “That sort of woke me up to the fact that maybe I don’t have as long as I thought," she says. "Maybe it isn’t thirty years anymore, maybe it’s like fifteen, or ten, or five, or I might die tomorrow. And so I’m beginning to see the end of the road. It’s not that far away when most of the journey is behind you.”
Rather than living in a state of wistful longing for love, Merchant feels complete with what she has. "It’s almost like your beloved is in you all the time and you just project your beloved onto a passing stranger. You can basically fall in love with anybody, especially if you want to be blind to their faults. You know, every time I’ve been in love, my first impression of the person was the most honest. But then it’s like you fall under a spell: I can change this person! My love can fix them!”
She talks about a friend who’s writing a book about Marion Woodman, who was a Jungian psychoanalyst and philosopher of the “Sister Tilly” generation. “[Woodman] called it ‘the agony of the retreating projection,” she explains. “If you can survive that, if you can survive seeing the other person clearly once the poison Cupid has injected leaves your system, if you can survive that revealing of who they really are, only then can you truly love. Otherwise it’s all just self-induced hysteria.”
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